Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Ferdinand I of Bulgaria - Part 1


Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria was a tough sell. His mother, the daughter of a French king, had set him up with a suitable prospect for a wife, in this instance an Austrian Arch-Duchess. Doing as he was told, Ferdinand declared his love and proposed marriage while seated on a park bench. The Arch-Duchess could see through the fog of insincerity and nearly laughed in Ferdinand’s face. This effeminate, preening, sybaritic, self absorbed monarch in resplendent clothes, jacket adorned with bejeweled stickpins, could be interested in only one thing – improvement of his status as a European Prince. She rightly guessed that, for romantic interest, his attentions were set on young men, and not a woman, Arch-Duchess or otherwise. Perhaps it was the painted fingernails that gave it away. Or the custom made fine chamois leather gloves he wore – indoors. At any rate, Ferdinand struck out. Big time.

Although Ferdinand I (1861-1948) eventually entered into a marriage of convenience with a rich Italian princess (Maria Louisa of Bourbon-Parma, who bore him four children), his penchant for young men was well-known throughout his life. Ferdinand's regular holidays on the Italian island of Capri, then a famous haunt for wealthy gay men, were common knowledge in royal courts throughout Europe.

Ferdinand was born in the opulent Palais Coburg* (photos at end of post) in Vienna, Austria, as the Duke of Saxony. He later became Prince of the Koháry (Hungarian) branch of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a ruling house dynasty of central Europe. You may recall that Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, was born into this family. Ferdinand, from an immensely wealthy and well-connected noble heritage, was the grandson of King Louis Philippe I of France, the nephew of Ferdinand II of Portugal, cousin of both Queen Victoria and Leopold II of Belgium and second cousin of King Edward VII of Britain – not to mention being the nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.

Ferdinand was given a military upbringing, but showed no aptitude for it. He was much more literary, interested in jewels, clothes and, indeed, those young blond men. Queen Victoria, his most prominent relative, greeted his 1887 accession as Prince Regent of Bulgaria with disbelief. She stated to her Prime Minister, “He is totally unfit, delicate, eccentric and effeminate ... he should be stopped at once.”

Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria was no fan, either. When Bulgaria and Russia affected a reconciliation in 1896, Ferdinand’s infant son Boris was converted from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the dominant religion in Bulgaria and Russia. In fact, the Bulgarian constitution required it (not to mention that Russian Tsar Nicholas II was the godfather of Boris). Franz Joseph was outraged and successfully petitioned the Pope to excommunicate Ferdinand. Ferdinand's wife, who was not consulted in the matter, was so horrified that she left Bulgaria and returned to her father in Italy, but she got no sympathy there, either. Her father ordered her to return to Bulgaria to her loveless marriage and ever domineering mother-in-law, who detested her.

Well, there you have it. One big happy family.

Sofia’s population was a paltry 11,649 at the time it was taken by Russian forces during the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878). Sofia was declared the capital of an autonomous Principality of Bulgaria in 1879, and by the time Ferdinand arrived eight years later, the population had increased to nearly 19,000. Things were tough in Bulgaria in 1886. Twenty-nine year old Alexander I of Battenberg, the first non-Ottoman ruler of the newly autonomous state, had just been forced to abdicate at gunpoint in Sofia and was exiled to Austria. When the Bulgarian delegation set out to find a new leader for their country, it was no easy task. Their country was young, poor and stunted by difficult if not impossible political complications. They courted Ferdinand mostly because he was from a well-connected ruling house that would mean, if he were put on the throne, their fledgling nation would be tied to nearly every crown dynasty of Europe – plus he was available.

Ferdinand’s imagination started spinning out of control as he dreamed of a triumphal entry onto Bulgarian soil dressed as a dashing monarch. This idea was sparked by the arrival of a splendid military uniform replete with medals, epaulets, sashes and effusive gold trim, delivered to Ferdinand by the Bulgarian delegation in Vienna, playing deftly to Ferdinand’s lifelong bent for ostentation, pomp and show. The guy loved his clothes.

Bear in mind that Ferdinand was not the first choice as Prince Regent of Bulgaria. Not even close. He was a rather effeminate 25-year-old bachelor who obsessed over fashion, jewelry and flowers (violets were his favorites) – with no experience as a soldier, ruler or diplomat. However, every other European prince, duke, and assorted noble who was approached wanted no part of their political intrigues and turned it down, even the neighboring King of Romania. Ferdinand mulled it over and stalled, awaiting the approval of Europe’s great powers, but the impatient Bulgarian National Assembly went ahead and elected him in absentia – and Ferdinand ultimately accepted their call. Bulgaria had its giant neighbor Russia breathing down its neck and needed a man on its vacant throne post haste. As it played out, Central Europe would never be the same.

Ferdinand's handsome eldest son Boris (right), who would eventually succeed him at age twenty-four, as Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria.

To the amazement of his initial detractors, Ferdinand made a success of his reign until the political complexities leading up to WWI. Ferdinand ruled over Bulgaria for 33 years (1887-1918), first as Prince Regent, then as Tsar, after Bulgaria secured its complete independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1908. He re-established the royal dynasty of Bulgaria with legitimacy, since he could trace his ancestry back to medieval rulers of Bulgaria, who used the term Tsar instead of King. Thus Ferdinand's son Boris became the first Bulgarian monarch born on Bulgarian soil in a thousand years. On October 5, 1908, Ferdinand declared Bulgaria's independence while proclaiming himself Tsar (see above photo taken on proclamation day). He then went on a building spree, ordering the construction of many prominent and architecturally distinguished buildings still seen in Sofia today.

His ambitious and very rich mother, Princess Clementine of Bourbon-Orléans, was both the daughter of a king (Louis Philippe of France) and the mother of one. She set about making over the rather tatty nation her son was ruling. She built hospitals, orphanages, and the like as proof of filial affection. For her son’s birthday, she built a railway line connecting Bulgaria to the rest of Europe. She was a force of nature who completely dominated her husband and children. Ferdinand was her favorite son, and she habitually spoiled him rotten.

During Ferdinand's state visit to Paris in 1910, his first as Tsar of Bulgaria, the Parisians were effusive in their welcome. The president, prime minister and other leaders greeted the arrival of his train with a royal gun salute and loud cheers from the crowds lining the route from the station to his quarters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where his apartment was furnished for the occasion with items from the palaces of the former French kings, notably Louis XIV and Louis XV. Every item in his bedroom had belonged to his grandfather, King Louis Philippe, including a vase with the portrait of his mother as young Princess Clémentine. At a speech in Ferdinand's honor at the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), the royal connection was illuminated by the words, "While we bow respectfully before the Tsar of Bulgaria, we also honor in his person the gallant son of our beloved France." Ferdinand swooned. When he drove through the grand boulevards of Paris, enthusiastic crowds cheered, "Long live the King!" It almost seemed as if the monarchy had been restored to France.

Ferdinand, however, turned out to be a genius at politics, playing the Great Powers against each other for almost 20 years, earning him the moniker “Foxy Ferdinand”. At the same time, he played arbiter to his country’s parliament and essentially did as he pleased, despite being merely a constitutional monarch. He even managed to gay up negotiations in the years prior to the First World War. As he expertly courted both major blocs, each of them included in their delegations a strapping young blond chauffeur who would take the Prince out for a drive into the woods between all these tiresome negotiations. Similarly, they invariably engaged their youngest, handsomest representative when they were seeking favors or concessions from Ferdinand. Worked like a charm.

In Proust's great novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the author incorporated his impressions of Ferdinand during the time of the Tsar's triumph in Paris. When a duchess was asked by Ferdinand if she was ever jealous, she replied, "Yes, sir, of your bracelets." In the same book it is explained that the turnaround in relations between arch enemies Kaiser Willem and Tsar Ferdinand to forging an alliance in WW I was due to the fact that they shared strong homosexual* proclivities.

*In 1895 a newspaper interview given by the embittered former Prime Minister, Stefan Stambolov (who had worked to place Ferdinand on the Bulgarian throne), created a nine-day scandal across Europe, when Stambolov focused on his personal witness of Ferdinand’s homosexual activity. Ferdinand, who considered Stambolov an obstacle to his authority, had forced Stambolov’s resignation in 1894, and Stambolov's “interview” with the press the following year was blatant retribution. However, Stambolov was assassinated in a brutal street assault in Sofia shortly after the interview appeared in print. Hmmm....

Ferdinand’s first missteps emerged when he championed the 1912 formation of the Balkan League, consisting of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro, with a goal of dismembering Turkey. Thus the First Balkan War of 1912 came about. Despite finishing up on the winning side, Ferdinand's territorial ambitions were stunted when his allies could not agree on sharing the Turkish spoils in Bulgaria’s favor. Thus an alliance was formed by Greece and Serbia against Bulgaria, and later Turkey and Romania joined them. From this atmosphere the Second Balkan War arose in 1913, with disastrous results for Bulgaria. Ferdinand’s people suffered a ruinous humiliation. Worse, when a young Bosnian Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 as payback for Austria’s annexation of Bosnia six years earlier, the stage was set for WWI.

Bulgaria tried to maintain neutrality but ended up a member of the Central Powers, consisting of members of the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and Germany. In 1915 Bulgaria declared war on Serbia; days later the U.K., Montenegro, France, Italy and Russia declared war on Bulgaria. Unfortunately, this put Bulgaria on the losing side of the war. WWI shattered the monarchies of the Central Powers, overthrowing Kaisers, Emperors and Sultans alike. When it was all over, only one throne was left standing – and to preserve it Ferdinand abdicated to his 24-year-old son, who became empowered as Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria on October 3, 1918.

Fortunately, Ferdinand had other pursuits to fall back on. A true polymath,  he distinguished himself as an author, botanist, entomologist and philatelist – and a world class homosexual philanderer. But we need to back up a bit. When his first wife  died giving birth to their fourth child, Ferdinand's indomitable mother stepped in to raise the children. After his mother died, to satisfy dynastic obligations and to provide his children with another mother figure, Ferdinand married Eleonore Caroline Gasparine Louise (in photo at right), an East German Princess, on  February 28, 1908. It was another marriage of convenience, and she knew what sort of relationship she was getting into. Most assume the marriage was never consummated. Ferdinand even demanded separate bedrooms for himself and Eleonore during their honeymoon as guests of King Carol I of Romania. It was no surprise that Eleonore remained neglected by Ferdinand throughout their marriage.

Ferdinand was ever the master of ostentation and self promotion. Addicted to luxury motorcars, he ordered a Mercedes that took the factory three years to build. Known as the Royal Mercedes, it boasted an interior of rosewood and mahogany set with inlaid floral designs of ivory and gold. This Mercedes was the first car ever built with an ashtray, which Ferdinand had requested, and it was considered the most expensive automobile ever built at the time. Note the custom radiator cap fashioned in the shape of his Bulgarian royal crown.

Ferdinand was known for his pugnacious behavior. When visiting German Emperor Wilhelm II, his second cousin, in 1909, Ferdinand was leaning out the window of the palace in Potsdam when the Emperor came up behind him and slapped him on the bottom. Ferdinand demanded an apology, and the Emperor complied; however, Ferdinand exacted revenge by awarding a valuable arms contract he had intended to give to the Krupp's factory in Germany to a French arms manufacturer instead. Industrialist Friedrich "Fritz" Krupp had often crossed paths with Ferdinand on the isle of Capri, where both men pursued underage males for sexual gratification. On a happier note, during a visit to Belgium in 1910 Ferdinand became the first head of state to fly in an airplane, making sure photographers were there to record the event. But I digress.

On his journey to the funeral of his second cousin, British King Edward VII in 1910, a dispute over protocol erupted about the placement of Ferdinand’s private railroad car (above) in relation to that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The Archduke won out, having his carriage positioned directly behind the engine, with Ferdinand's placed second. The dining car was the third coach from the front, and Ferdinand stubbornly refused the Archduke access through his own carriage to the dining car. Ferdinand wore a flamboyant silk turban on the day of Edward VII’s funeral, while other assembled crowned heads shared their disdain at Ferdinand’s ostentation in calling himself a Tsar. As well they gossiped about the fact that he kept a Byzantine Emperor’s full regalia, designed by a Parisian theatrical costumer, against the day when he might reassemble the Byzantine dominions beneath his scepter. The man loved his clothes! Nine kings, Ferdinand among them, led the funeral procession. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Former President Theodore Roosevelt attended as a special envoy of the United States. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place, and the last of its kind.

In the video below, King Ferdinand can be seen in a display of temper at the 1932 wedding of Prince Gustaf Adolf, Duke of Västerbotten, to Princess Sibylla of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (future parents of King Charles XVI of Sweden) in Coburg. Victoria Melita, Grand Duchess of Russia (and granddaughter of Queen Victoria) was among the first guests to exit the church at the conclusion of the ceremony. After the bride and groom’s car had departed, as Grand Duchess Victoria was about to climb into the car that brought her, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria appeared behind her, ready to leave as well. The king kicked up a fuss that it was against protocol and unacceptable that the grand Duchess leave before him, since he “outranked” her, even as a deposed king – she was, after all, a mere Grand Duchess. Ferdinand prevailed, marching toward the car between an insulted and confused Grand Duchess and her 23-year-old daughter, Princess Kira, who had served as a bridesmaid. The onlookers were shocked by the king’s fiery displeasure.

After his forced abdication in 1918, Ferdinand lived a life of luxurious exile in Coburg, Germany. He commented, “The main thing in life is to support any condition of bodily or spiritual exile with dignity. If one sups with sorrow, one need not invite the world to see you eat.” He was pleased that the throne had passed to his son, and Ferdinand was not made despondent by exile, spending most of his time devoted to pleasant artistic endeavors, gardening, travel and natural history. He died of natural causes at age 87 in 1948 at the Bürglaß-Schlösschen ("little palace", photo above), a dynastic residence of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha ruling house in Coburg, thirty years after abdicating his throne to his son. Tsar Ferdinand I's unusually long life spanned important world events, from the U.S. Civil War to the French commune of 1871 and on through two devastating world wars. Ferdinand’s 18th-century “little palace” still stands opposite the State Theatre in modern day Coburg, but is today used as a municipal building where weddings take place. The rear garden is the largest and most popular Biergarten in Coburg.

Tragically, Ferdinand outlived both his sons. His eldest son and successor, Boris III, died under mysterious circumstances*** after returning from a visit to Hitler in Germany in 1943. Boris III's son, Simeon II, succeeded him as Tsar (at age 6) only to be deposed by the Soviets in 1946, ending the Bulgarian monarchy that Ferdinand had re-established. The Kingdom of Bulgaria was succeeded by the People's Republic of Bulgaria, under which Ferdinand’s sole surviving son, Kyril, was executed. Amazingly, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ferdinand's grandson Simeon II returned from exile in Spain in 1998 and resumed the role of leader of the nation upon taking office as Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria. During his time in power, from July 2001 until August 2005, Bulgaria joined NATO and the European Community (full membership in the EU did not occur until 2007). The royal Vrana Palace buildings and grounds on the outskirts of Sofia were returned to Simeon and his sister in 1998. Simeon and his wife, who donated most of the acreage back to the city for use as a public park, to this day reside in the hunting lodge on the property. At age 74 Simeon is today one of the last living heads of state from the World War II-era, the only living person who has borne the Bulgarian title "Tsar", and one of the few monarchs in history to have become a head of government through democratic election. Update: In early 2012 Simeon ceded his rights as head of the princely house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Koháry to his sister, Princess Marie Louise of Bulgaria.

***Conspiracy theories abound, since Boris III had defied Hitler’s demand to send Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews to concentration camps. Under Tsar Boris III, Bulgaria was the only nation in Europe to save its entire Jewish population during the Holocaust, and Boris was the only world leader to defy Hitler face to face during the war. Two weeks after the acrimonious meeting between Boris and Hitler, Boris died after his return to Bulgaria, officially from heart failure. His two private doctors determined that Boris had died from a slow working poison that takes several weeks to kill its victim, the same sort of poison that had killed the Greek Prime Minister two years earlier. After the end of the war, when the king’s body was disinterred for examination, it was discovered that Communist forces had removed his coffin to a secret location, which remains unknown to this day. Only the king’s heart was found in the grave where he had been buried. In 1994 the United States Congress proclaimed King Boris III the savior of fifty thousand Bulgarian Jews, and King Boris III was posthumously awarded the Jewish National Fund's Medal of the Legion of Honor, the first non-Jew to receive the award, considered one of the Jewish community's highest honors.

Trivia: The one and only time I visited Bulgaria (the country is favored by a beautiful, mountainous  landscape), I was astonished that the head movements for "yes" and "no" are the reverse of what the rest of us use. If you ask someone's permission to take a photo and he moves his head from left to right, you're in the clear. The same goes for Greece, and it trips me up every time. True, I swear.

*Palais Coburg (above), Ferdinand’s boyhood home in Vienna, is now a luxury hotel where, for a high price, it is possible to soak up the aura of Ferdinand and his ancestors. The Palais faces the Ringstrasse, opposite the Stadtpark in downtown Vienna. It’s wicked expensive, so the closest I’ve come is a drink at the bar (also at a ruinous price); the hotel restaurant is popular with Vienna’s elite. There are just 35 rooms, each a suite. If you’re feeling flush, room rates are €670-€860 per night (converted to U.S. dollars = $885-$1,135). Photo below shows the opulent interior; the parquet floors are exceptional.


  1. Very good article but in a footnote about Boris III being assassinated for not sending Jews to concentration camps could you change it from "Polish Concentration Camps" to "German Concentration Camps", as it is at the moment historically inaccurate and unfair. Concentration camps were on polish territory but belonged to Nazi Germany so should be referred as such.

  2. Thank you very much for your scintillating article on Foxy Ferdinand.

    He was He was cryptically referred to several times in Simon C bag Montefiore the Romanovs. Your informative article filled in a lot of gaps.
    Bien fait!

  3. Fantastic history, which I like reading more than anything now. I didn't know any of this. What a character, and unlike some of the effeminate rulers that Gibbon so decries, he was actually effective (most of the Roman ones like Elagobalus were not), and seems to have discovered strengths beyond flowers, costume, and jewelry, surprisingly rising to the occasion. Although as a constitutional monarch, his sybaritic nature was more likely to flourish with less likelihood of assassination than an actual Roman emperor with absolute power (supposed to have it--didn't nearly always work as well as with Marcus Aurelius, as proved again by his son Commodus, who was definitely bisexual, but also even more murderous and appalling than Caligula or Nero.) All sorts of opposing moments in this history, whether Boris's nobility in WWII, or the artistry of Ferdinand. Quite a few cuts above Raymond Chandler's 'pansey decorators' in Old Hollywood.

    I'm annoyed I don't remember the passage in Proust with 'the duchess'. Oriane, the Duchesse de Guermantes, was the most enjoyable character--maybe 100 pages at her salon and dinner with poulet a la financiere--but this duchess with Ferdinand must have been in the final volume, because I don't think WWI had been mentioned till then. I did read all the volumes, but some not as closely as others, and was bored out of my skull with Albertine. Loved Morel's hotness and fucking the Prince de Guermantes, while Basin went for ladies of pleasure at his opera box, as I recall. Morel is the more typical type of 'casting couch' talent, not like adorable Ralph Hall, whose love letters I found last night, and they are among the most touching things I've ever read.

    You have put Bulgaria on the map for me, even though I've got a niece married, since divorcedf, to a Bulgarian. From some of the really opulent palaces you've shown, including those of Princess Gloria, I see that I don't have the requisite knowledge (by a mile) to make that much difference between one ultra-luxury domicile and another. I do find them all attractive, quite, though, and appreciate your putting up shots of some of the lesser-known palaces. Hard to surpass the Viennese, though.


Ferdinand I of Bulgaria - Part 2

 Fancy Uniforms, Palaces, Lavender Walls
And a Stable of Blond, Blue-Eyed Chauffeurs

When Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became Prince of Bulgaria in 1887 at age 26, he found himself ruler of a rag-tag country struggling to be taken seriously by the rest of Europe. Though he was bowled over by the country’s picturesque landscape and captivating antiquities, there was little else to enchant a spoiled young Prince. The centuries-old monasteries, mosques and churches, monuments to the successive Thracian, Roman and Byzantine civilizations that had thrived in the lands of Bulgaria, were all well and good, but Ferdinand needed a place to live that was suited to his lifestyle, which tilted toward grand opera, formal French etiquette and other bastions of luxury, particularly fine cuisine and wine.

A modest, leaky, unfinished “palace” awaited him in downtown Sofia**, whose citizens had to navigate muddy, rutted unlit streets with no drainage and few trees. Ferdinand  (1861-1948), the bisexual subject of today’s post, had grown up in the lap of luxury at his parent’s palace in downtown Vienna, which then had a population approaching 2 million. When he arrived in Sofia, he took one look around that Balkan backwater and realized he needed to take drastic, immediate action.

**Sofia (pronounced SOH-fee-uh, accent on the first syllable) has a population today of 1.2 million, quite a growth spurt from 19,000 residents in 1887.

It was fortunate that his fantastically wealthy mother, herself the daughter of a French king, wanted to help out. In fact, she dedicated the rest of her life working to get her son established on a European throne (unfortunately she died one year shy of Ferdinand's elevating himself from Prince to Tsar of Bulgaria, thus re-establishing the country's monarchy). You may recall from an earlier post that, as a birthday gift, she gave her son a railroad connecting Bulgaria to the rest of Europe. He essentially set out to create a world capital from scratch. Over the next twenty years Ferdinand had to create departments for nearly everything found lacking when he first arrived in Sofia in 1887: for administration, police, finance, army, public education, commerce and industry.

Ferdinand rolled up his sleeves and got to work. In 1888 he founded both a zoo and a university, the first-ever institution of higher learning in all of Bulgaria. The following year he established a National Museum of Natural History along with opera and ballet companies, then charged on to commission a fine building for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (1893), which he had founded earlier. He continued to seek recognition by world leaders; in 1903 he established diplomatic relations with the United States. Ferdinand founded a National Archeological Museum in 1905, housing it inside a former Ottoman mosque built in 1474.

Ferdinand established a National Theater and dedicated its magnificent new neoclassical building in 1907 (photo above).

When Ferdinand first took up residence in Sofia, the great and ancient sixth-century basilica of Hagia Sophia lay in ruins, abandoned after suffering damage from two earthquakes. Ferdinand oversaw restoration work on Hagia Sophia while simultaneously witnessing construction of the adjacent Alexander Nevsky Eastern Orthodox cathedral, which was dedicated in 1912 in his presence. This enormous gold-domed neo-Byzantine cathedral (photo below) has become the principal tourist attraction in Bulgaria.

Sofia had been famous for its mineral springs. In 1911 Ferdinand oversaw the opening of a grand Public Mineral Bath House and Spa (left) built in Vienna-Secessionist architectural style with noted embellishment of majolica tile work inside and out; at present a section of this magnificent edifice is being converted for use as the Museum of Sofia. Also in 1911 the great Central Market Hall complex of 170 shops and stalls opened, occupying an entire city block; this Renaissance/Neo-Byzantine complex was recently restored to its original function and appearance. The façade bears a bas-relief of the coat of arms of Sofia above the main entrance.

Among the ways Ferdinand countered Bulgaria’s inferior international standing was to wear imposing, extravagant military uniforms; the other was to build/renovate a collection of castles, palaces and country homes furnished with the same sorts of chandeliers, carpets and table settings that were found in the great palaces of Europe. When he hosted foreign dignitaries, Ferdinand put on quite a show, and no detail was too insignificant to involve his direct oversight.

Guests would arrive at the official Sofia palace (above) to find bodyguards placed on every step, handsomely clad in splendid scarlet uniforms embellished with silver-braid. They were led into welcoming chambers that had been scented with pine. Violet and mauve, Ferdinand’s favorite colors, were represented in silk wall coverings, fabrics and elaborate floral displays. Crystal chandeliers, fine French china and porcelains, uniformed servants, rare Oriental carpets, extravagant silver services and the finest cutlery wowed his visitors. He took pains to place quartets of musicians behind upholstered screens, so that their sound was not so loud as to disrupt conversation. Here Ferdinand hosted private theatricals, fancy balls, dinners and parties that were over the top in pomp and luxury. Ferdinand himself chose the menus, music, flowers, entertainments and dinnerware.

Before you knew it, Ferdinand could chose among a growing collection of fine official residences. The city-center palace in Sofia (now housing the National Art Gallery) had been so woefully inadequate that he more than doubled its size just after moving in. The photo above shows the wing Ferdinand added to house his private apartments. As well, he planted hundreds of trees and established a garden surrounding the residence.

Ferdinand next purchased a vast tract of land twenty miles southeast of Sofia to build Vrana Palace (1906), set in a large park with a hunting lodge. This became Ferdinand’s favorite residence and the place where his family spent most of its time. Ferdinand indulged his horticultural interests to great effect there and kept three elephants, bison and antelope on the vast grounds. Vrana Palace was much larger than his in-town official palace in Sofia. Still not satisfied, Ferdinand kept royal apartments in monasteries, numerous country houses and hunting lodges*. Not to mention purpose-built chalets and cottages in the Rila mountains, for which he had to build access roads. Once his son Boris converted from Roman Catholicism to the Greek Orthodox church, rooms were kept for the royal family in the 10th-century Greek Orthodox monastery in Rila, where today Tsar Boris III lies buried.

*Tsarska Bistritsa, in the Rila mountain town of Borovets, is a very large, fanciful  hunting lodge built by Ferdinand along a course of cascading waterfalls. It was recently returned to the royal family of Tsar Simeon II, and in 2002 the wedding of Princes Kalina, Simeon’s  daughter, took place there.

About five miles from the Black Sea resort of Varna, visible only from the sea, sat Euxinograd, which Ferdinand developed into a splendid royal summer residence surrounded by exotic flowers, fountains, shrubbery, trees and vineyards. This palace was built from scratch and reflected Ferdinand’s most idiosyncratic tastes, so I will make a more elaborate description of it.

Shielded from the main coastal road by a small woodland, Euxinograd palace was built as a replica of the right hand wing of France’s royal Chateau de Saint-Cloud. It would have pleased Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria to know that since 2007 this palace has hosted the annual opera festival, Operosa. Ferdinand was an accomplished musician who habitually played piano arrangements of his favorite opera excerpts by Gluck and Wagner before retiring to bed, and he saw to it that each of his many palaces and country homes had a music room. The spacious music chamber in his palace in Sofia, for instance, was outfitted with a pipe organ, harp and three pianos.

Euxinograd was constructed in French château style, a reminder to all that Ferdinand was the grandson of a French king. Boasting a high metal-edged mansard roof, figured brickwork and a clock tower, this summer palace was the scene of splendid royal dinners and entertainments. A disused monastery on the property was transformed into a summer dining room. Jutting out over a cliff, the structure afforded guests the impression of floating in mid-air out over the sea.

As always, there was on staff a veritable stable of blond haired, blue-eyed male chauffeurs to drive Ferdinand around the magnificent landscape surrounding Varna in his ever-expanding collection of fine motorcars. He spent a lot of quality time in the company of his chauffeurs, if you get my drift. Cabinet ministers and affairs of state often had to wait until Ferdinand and his chauffeurs returned from their long "drives" through the forests.

Through his French mother, Ferdinand had acquired a part of the ruined Chateau de Saint-Cloud,  located outside Paris. The palace had been burned by the Prussian armies in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War and was subsequently pulled down. Ferdinand had surviving architectural elements of the French palace incorporated into his new seaside summer home. He loved pointing out to guests the main pediment of Saint-Cloud palace, now embedded into the wall supporting Euxinograd’s main terrace. Depicting the French royal coat-of-arms (above), these architectural remnants had been transported stone by stone from Paris to the Black Sea on the Orient Express railway coaches.

The palace, sited on a promontory jutting into the Black Sea, can be visited today. It still contains the walnut and mahogany furniture from Ferdinand’s family, and a sundial, a gift from Queen Victoria, adorns the grounds. An enormous chandelier sporting gilded lilies and a royal crown still illuminates a reception room; it had been a present from the French royal house of Bourbon,  from which Ferdinand’s mother was descended. Every door handle in the palace is engraved with Tsar Ferdinand’s coat of arms, including those leading to the toilets.

The palace boasts an underground wine cellar that covers two floors. Constructed in 1891 to house an extensive collection of wine for royal consumption, a scandal erupted in 2002, when it was discovered that extraordinarily valuable vintage bottles (left), some dating from Bulgaria's 1878 liberation from the Ottoman empire, were missing from the Palace's cellar. Three French wines, well-preserved and each worth thousands of dollars, were among 137 bottles that disappeared. Last seen in April, 2002, the 124-year-old French wines had been a gift to Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand I and his son, Tsar Boris III. The wine master was immediately dismissed, amidst scandalous charges. The Euxinograd estate grounds are surrounded by vineyards, which still produce white wine and brandy that are among the best in the country. The root stocks were selected and brought here by Ferdinand himself, who was an avid and expert naturalist. Today’s Euxinograd Chardonnay is world famous.

The palace grounds lead down directly to the Black Sea. It took several decades to complete the gardens, and today they are home to more than 300 species of plants from Asia, Latin America, North Africa and the South of France. Ferdinand ordered 50,000 trees from Marseille and planted them in especially rich soil transported from the mouth of Bulgaria’s Kamchiya River. Coniferous shrubs and evergreens were brought to the estate from Europe, Syria and Algeria, each species chosen by the Tsar himself. The palace gardens are a most pleasing fusion of French and English design devised by noted French landscape architect Edouard André. The grounds include two ornate bridges (one of which is made to look like a fallen tree) under which flows the Kestrichka Bara River. Embellishments include French bronzes, a statue of Neptune (above) and a lake filled with water lilies. Not to mention a Japanese garden. And a butterfly garden.

Ferdinand’s second wife Eleonore Reuss-Kostritz died at Euxinograd in 1917, and the next year, at the close of WW I, Ferdinand abdicated to his son Boris, in order to preserve the crown. When the Bulgarian monarchy was abolished after WW II, the palace became a summer home for Communist party bigwigs. When the Communist regime fell in 1989, the palace was used as a presidential residence, and during the summer, cabinet meetings are still held there.

Palace building was apparently in the blood of the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas. When Ferdinand’s son, Tsar Boris III, visited the town of Banya in southern Bulgaria in 1925, he was captivated by the climate and local curative mineral springs. He built a large residence there in 1929, and subsequently supplied the village with electricity and had it connected to the Plovdiv-Karlovo railway line. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, Banya Palace was eventually returned to Boris’s son, the deposed Tsar Simeon II (born in this palace in 1937), who emerged from exile in Spain to serve as Bulgaria’s Prime Minister from 2001 through 2005. Simeon, who became Tsar at age six, has never renounced his throne.

As well, Tsar Ferdinand had ancestral palaces in Germany, Austria and Hungary. He was the last occupant of St. Anthony Castle (photo at left), a well-preserved Baroque palace (1749) in a mountain setting near Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia,  in what was then Hungary.

Today’s visitors admire its famous Chinese Parlor (photo below). Ferdinand delighted in the manor house’s quirky “year” symbolism, with 4 wings for each of the 4 seasons, 12 chimneys for 12 months, 52 rooms for 52 weeks, 7 arcades for 7 days in a week and 365 windows for the number of days in a year. Well honestly.

After Ferdinand’s abdication in 1918, he retired to Coburg, Germany, cradle of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty, where he had a spare palace, Bürglaß-Schlösschen, in reserve. Stll in possession of his vast fortune, he lived the remaining thirty years of his life there as a bachelor, indulging his interests in horticulture, travel and male companionship. Ferdinand continued his month-long visits to the Italian island of Capri, in the Bay of Naples, infamous as a hang out for wealthy homosexuals in pursuit of young men. As well, he sustained his interest in fine motorcars and the young blond men who drove them.